corporations diversifies our toolbox, it keeps us from having all our eggs in the basket
of public policy. We're not abandoning public policy, but supplementing it."
"That's where the money is."
So goes one of the most famous answers of the 20th
century, uttered by Willie Sutton when asked why he robbed banks.
A modified version of Sutton's pragmatism might serve
those Sierra Club activists who are directly targeting corporations that are harming the
Why corporations? That's where the power is.
To be sure, Club volunteers and staff still devote the
bulk of their energy to influencing government officials and entities. But as political
and economic power shifts in this age of globalization from the nation-state to the
transnational corporation, so, too, do the targets of pressure campaigns. There are a
variety of efforts afoot within the Club to influence corporations directly -- through
boycotts, shareholder resolutions, purchasing advisories, public education and the
all-encompassing favorite: making them look bad when they do wrong.
At gas stations across North America, Club members and
allies are boycotting Shell Oil because of the company's complicity in environmental and
human rights abuses in Nigeria. In April, Club members from Georgia and Florida journeyed
to Du Pont's annual shareholders meeting in Delaware to push a shareholder resolution
urging the company to abandon its plans for a titanium dioxide mine on the edge of the
Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge.
Along the Hudson River north of New York City, Club
activists are pressuring General Electric to clean up the PCBs the company has dumped in
the river. In Columbia, Miss., the Club worked with the Jesus People Against Pollution to
confront Reichhold Chemical, the owner of an abandoned turpentine plant leaking toxic
effluent. And in New Orleans, the Club has shined the spotlight on Freeport McMoRan, which
operates the world's largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine in Indonesia's Irian
Jaya and has poisoned the island's rivers with mine waste.
"Corporations are very sensitive to image," says
Jim Price, staff director of the Club's Southeast field office in Birmingham, Ala. Price
has presented more than two dozen corporate-accountability workshops in the last three
years. "When we focus public attention on the malfeasance of corporations and say
they're not being good citizens, they're going to want to correct that image. The key is
to be sure they change their behavior, not just their image."
Directly challenging corporations represents a new front
for the Club. Price says that part of the impetus for this approach grew out of the Club's
environmental justice work in the South. Residents in Columbia, Miss., who lived near an
abandoned turpentine plant that had blown up and leaked whenever it rained, had become
increasingly frustrated working with the regional office of the Environmental Protection
Agency. Several years ago, when a story in Sierra magazine targeted the party responsible
for the site, Reichhold Chemical, which has over 40 Superfund sites, the company's CEO was
deluged with letters and he agreed to meet with the community. (The residents got part of
what they wanted -- health monitoring -- but did not get relocated, as they had hoped.)
Meanwhile, Mike McCloskey, Sierra Club chairman and former
executive director, was finding that direct pressure could pay off when trying to stop
environmentally damaging development projects in other countries. A letter-writing
campaign organized by the Sierra Club pressured Citicorp to deny a loan for a mammoth dam
on the Amazon River in Brazil. By joining a boycott of skiing in Austria, the Club helped
stop a proposed dam on the Danube River.
McCloskey has been pushing within the Club for a greater
emphasis on this approach. In February 1997, he and directors Michele Perrault and Susan
Holmes presented a briefing to the Board on corporate accountability. Last year, the Club
included as one of its campaign goals, for the first time, to "hold polluting
industries accountable by publicizing their records of pollution."
"We want to clean up pollution," McCloskey says.
"Might we get more payoff for our efforts by lobbying the Republican-controlled
Congress or by directly pressuring companies?"
He acknowledges that activist culture is oriented toward
influencing public policy. "But we're not talking about abandoning public policy,
rather about supplementing it. Focusing on corporations diversifies our toolbox, it keeps
us from having all our eggs in the basket of public policy."
The Club's initial forays into corporate accountability
have mostly been attempts to influence a specific company to fix or prevent a particular
environmental problem -- like trying to stop Du Pont's planned mine. In addition there are
efforts to improve overall environmental performance of an entire industry. This
characterizes the Club's efforts to steer the auto industry toward greater fuel efficiency
(see ClubBeat, page 7) and to prod corporate hog and chicken factories into stopping their
pollution of rivers and streams.
But there's no one way to do it. "We usually
conceptualize our relationship with business as either being in bed with the company or
being a relentless adversary," says McCloskey. "Those are the ends of the
spectrum, but there are strategies we need to explore in between."
He notes, for example, the opportunity to build
relationships with companies, to take advantage of the tremendous growth within the
industrial sector of in-house environmental staff. "Most of these people are devoted
to better performance," he says, "sometimes without support from the company. In
the end, yes, they work for the people who pay them, but they provide a point of contact
and they know what we're talking about."
And we can't just criticize corporations, cautions
McCloskey. "When a company does the right thing, we have to recognize that, too,
which is what we did when Honda announced its almost-zero-emission car."
Another path the Club is exploring is how to use consumer
clout to "reward" companies and products that are more environmentally sound.
This can be as simple as using paper with a high level of post-consumer waste content or
as complicated as certifying Mitsubishi's timber practices in tropical forests.
Of course, much of what the Club has been doing for
decades could be characterized as holding corporations accountable. What is the Clean
Water Act, if not a tool to keep corporations from polluting waterways? Pressuring the
government to pass and enforce good laws will continue to be the Club's primary focus.
Unfortunately, environmentalists have mostly been playing defense lately -- working to
stop measures that would increase corporate power, like takings legislation or regulatory
reform. The most insidious of these -- still under deliberation in Paris -- is the
Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which would give corporations broad new powers at
the expense of local and national governments.
"Corporate-accountability campaigns can raise the
visibility of egregious corporate behavior and help to mobilize citizens," says Ruth
Caplan, Club volunteer and former co-chair of Alliance for Democracy, "but unless we
stop corporate power grabs, like the MAI, the Club's ability to go after corporations
directly will be drastically undermined."
This brings us quickly to the limits of
corporate-accountability campaigns and the tough underlying issues of how much power
corporations wield, not just to run their businesses, but to dominate public policy.
It's not just that corporations are huge -- a September
1996 report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that 51 of the world's 100 largest
economies were transnational corporations -- or that they received more than $50 billion
in direct subsidies from the U.S. federal government in 1994 (according to the Office of
Management and Budget). But because of their size and power, they end up controlling --
through campaign contributions, among other things -- those democratic institutions that
are supposed to control them.
But as John Klotz, a New York City lawyer and member of
the Club's Corporate Accountability Network, says, "In a democracy, the only way to
truly address corporate power is through public policy."
It's a vicious circle: To challenge corporate power,
citizen groups have to use democratic institutions, which are too often beholden to
That's why for Price, making corporations accountable has
to start with overhauling our current campaign-finance system.
In the short run, corporate-accountability campaigns give
citizen groups a new tool. In the long run, how sharp and effective that tool is will
depend on our success in addressing the bigger issue of corporate influence on public
"It's not just our environment and public health that
are endangered," says Price, "but democracy itself."
For more information: Contact Jim Price to find out
more about the Club's corporate accountability workshops: (205) 933-9111; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources: There are dozens of Web sites that
explore corporate accountability. Here are some of them:
Multinational Monitor: http://www.essential.org/monitor/monitor.html
Corporate Accountability Project: http://www.corporations.org/
Corporate Watch: http://www.corpwatch.org/home.html
Up to Top